Researchers Seek Artifacts Of Underground Railroad At Ithaca Church

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VESTAL, NY (WSKG) ― Local youth in Ithaca and professors and students from Cornell University* are conducting excavations at the St. James AME Zion Church, which was a place of refuge for people escaping slavery. They are hoping to uncover artifacts to support oral history and legends about the church’s role in the Underground Railroad.

St. James AME Zion Church in Ithaca. (Megan Zerez)

Those involved with the Underground Railroad were under immense pressure to prevent slave patrols from discovering paths and hiding places.

Other historical events typically have detailed records, maps, letters, diary entries and other types of artifacts. Due to the Underground Railroad’s secretive nature, routes and safe places were shared through word of mouth, preventing allies and those on the run from being tracked down.

“It’s a unique archaeological case in that we’re searching for evidence of something that was really working hard to not be seen,” said Adam T. Smith, a professor of anthropology and archaeology at Cornell. Smith is the co-director of the excavation. “So I think archaeology has an incredibly important role to play.”

Without many artifacts or a specific archaeological path, oral histories and legends have filled in the gaps of the Underground Railroad’s history. The archaeological dig gives the church the opportunity to find artifacts to support the oral histories.

“It’s not to say one is better than the other, but they give us a more comprehensive view,” said Gerard Aching, professor of Africana studies and director of the Underground Railroad Research project at Cornell. “Not only of what happens, but also the aspirations of that community.”

Physical materials provide more insight into personal experiences and the lives of those involved, the fugitives, but also the allies.

Aching says a comprehensive historical memory can be a blueprint for allyship today with the Black Lives Matter movement. Understanding what allies did and went through to help fugitives can be used to determine a criteria for being considered an ally.

The dig is running every Saturday until November 13th. Faculty from the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies will conduct research on the materials they unearth.

“A lot of what happens with archaeology is not the excavations, it’s what happens afterwards. That’s the really time consuming part of what we do” said Smith. “So, that’s the part where everything gets cleaned, everything gets catalogues, everything gets analyzed and looked at by people with various forms of expertise.”

The directors of the excavations plan to share their findings with the church. There is a possibility of exhibits at the church or local institutions to help the St. James AME Zion Church tell the community their story.

*Full disclosure: Cornell University is a WSKG Underwriter.